The Legal World: Prisoners’ Rights
1. Explain what is meant by the hands-off doctrine.
2. Identify the sources of prisoners’ rights.
3. List the five ways in which inmates can challenge their conditions of confinement.
4. Describe the major changes that took place during the prisoner rights era.
5. List and explain the four amendments to the U.S. Constitution on which most prisoners’ claims are based.
6. Explain how the development of rights for female prisoners has differed from that of the rights of male prisoners.
The Hands-Off Doctrine
Decline of the Hands-Off Doctrine
· 1941, Ex parte Hull began the dismantling of the hands-off doctrine when the court ruled that the prisons could not stop inmates from applying to a federal court for a writ of habeas corpus.
· 1944, Coffin v. Reichard brought about the decision that inmates did not lose their civil rights when in prison.
· Access to the courts was slowly established.
· In 1970, the hands-off era ended with the case of Holt v. Sarver, where the entire Arkansas prison system was declared to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
· The U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, states constitutions, and state statutes.
· Constitutional rights of inmates may be restricted by:
o Maintenance of institutional order.
o Maintenance of institutional security.
o Safety of prison inmates and staff.
o Rehabilitation of inmates.
Mechanisms for Securing Prisoners’ Rights
· Writ of habeas corpus.
· Tort action in state court.
· Federal civil rights lawsuit.
o Compensatory damages.
o Punitive damages.
· Request for injunctive relief.
· The criminal court system.
Inmate Grievance Procedures
· Inmate grievance procedures are formal institutional processes for hearing inmate complaints.
· Most inmate grievances concern discipline, program assignments, medical issues, personal property, and complaints against staff members.
· Reasons for establishing grievance mechanisms:
o Promoting justice and fairness.
o Providing opportunities for inmates to voice complaints.
o Reducing the number of court cases filed by inmates.
o Assisting correctional administrators in the identification of institutional problems.
o Reducing violence.
· Formalized inmate grievance procedures are required by court ruling.
· Usually a three step process is used for resolving grievances:
o A staff member or committee in each institution receives complaints, investigates, and makes decisions.
o If a prisoner is dissatisfied with that decision, the case may be appealed to the warden.
o If the prisoner is still dissatisfied, the complaint may be given to the stat’s commissioner of corrections.
The Prisoner Rights Era (1970-1991)
· Legitimate penological objectives.
· Balancing test.
· Freedom of speech and expression.
· Freedom of religion.
· Right to privacy.
· Cruel and unusual punishment.
· Medical care.
· Prison conditions.
· Due process.
End of the Prisoner Rights Era
· By the late 1980s, the prisoner rights era was drawing to a close.
· Frivolous lawsuits.
Female Inmates and the Courts
· Barefield v. Leach (1974) demonstrated that the opportunities and programs for female inmates were clearly inferior to those for male inmates.
· In Glover v. Johnson (1979), the court ordered a plan to provide higher education and vocational training for female prisoners in the Michigan prison system.
· Strip searches of female misdemeanor offenders awaiting bond in a Chicago lockup were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
· Women inmates have continued to win significant court cases regarding conditions of confinement.
The hands-off doctrine was a working philosophy of the courts in this country until 1970. It allowed corrections officials to run prisons without court intervention. The hands-off doctrine existed because courts were reluctant to interfere with activities of the executive branch and because judges realized that they were not experts in corrections.
The sources of prisoners’ rights are the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, state constitutions, and state statutes.
Inmates can challenge the conditions of their confinement through (1) a state habeas corpus action, (2) a federal habeas corpus action, (3) a state tort lawsuit, (4) a federal civil rights lawsuit, and (5) an injunction to obtain relief.
During the prisoner rights era (1970–1991), inmates won many court cases based on claims that conditions of their confinement violated their constitutional rights. Court decisions affected inmates’ rights to freedom of expression, including free speech; personal communications; access to the courts and legal services; religion; assembly and association; voice grievances about disciplinary procedures; protection from personal and cell searches; health care, including diet and exercise; protection from violence; adequate physical conditions of confinement; and rehabilitation.
Most prisoners’ claims focus on denial of constitutional rights guaranteed by the First (freedom of expression and religion), Fourth (freedom from unlawful search and seizure), Eighth (freedom from cruel and unusual punishment), and Fourteenth (due process and equal protection of the law) Amendments.
The prisoners’ rights movement has been largely a male phenomenon. Female inmates have had to petition the courts to gain rights that male inmates already had.
Hands-off doctrine: A historical policy of American courts not to intervene in prison management. Courts tended to follow the doctrine until the late 1960s.
Prisoners’ rights: Constitutional guarantees of free speech, religious practice, due process, and other private and personal rights as well as constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishments made application to prison inmates by the federal courts.
Constitutional rights: The personal and due process rights guaranteed to individuals by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments, especially the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. Constitutional rights are the basis of most inmate rights.
Institutional needs: Prison administration interests recognized by the courts as justifying some restrictions on the constitutional rights of prisoners. Those interests are maintenance of institutional order, maintenance of institutional security, safety of prison inmates and staff, and rehabilitation of inmates.
Civil liability: A legal obligation to another person to do, pay, or make good something.
Writ of habeas corpus: An order that directs the person detaining a prisoner to bring him or her before a judge, who will determine the lawfulness of the imprisonment.
Tort: A civil wrong, a wrongful act, or a wrongful breach of duty, other than a breach of contract, whether intentional or accidental, from which injury to another occurs.
Nominal damages: Small amounts of money a court may award when inmates have sustained no actual damages, but there is clear evidence that their rights have been violated.
Compensatory damages: Money a court may award as payment for actual losses suffered by a plaintiff, including out-of-pocket expenses incurred in filing the suit, other forms of monetary or material loss, and pain, suffering, and mental anguish.
Punitive damages: Money a court may award to punish a wrongdoer when a wrongful act was intentional and malicious or was done with reckless disregard for the rights of the victim.
Injunction: A judicial order to do or refrain from doing a particular act.
Jurisdiction: The power, right, or authority of a court to interpret and apply the law.
Precedent: A previous judicial decision that judges should consider in deciding future cases.
objectives: The realistic concerns that correctional officers and administrators have for the integrity and security of the correctional institution and the safety of staff and inmates.
Balancing test: A method the U.S. Supreme Court uses to decide prisoners’ rights cases, weighing the rights claimed by inmates against the legitimate needs of prisons.
Cruel and unusual punishment: A penalty that is grossly disproportionate to the offense or that violates today’s broad and idealistic concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency (Estelle v. Gamble, 1976, and Hutto v. Finney, 1978). In the area of capital punishment, cruel and unusual punishments and those that involve torture, a lingering death, or unnecessary pain.
Consent decree: A written compact, sanctioned by a court, between parties in a civil case, specifying how disagreements between them are to be resolved.
Deliberate indifference: Intentional and willful indifference. Within the field of correctional practice, the term refers to calculated inattention to unconstitutional conditions of confinement.
Totality of conditions: A standard to be used in evaluating whether prison conditions are cruel and unusual.
Due process: A right guaranteed by the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and generally understood, in legal contexts, to mean the expected course of legal proceedings according to the rules and forms established for the protection of persons’ rights.
Frivolous lawsuits: Lawsuits with no foundation in fact. They are generally brought for publicity, political, or other reasons not related to the law.